Amazon just made its biggest acquisition in history by ponying up $13.7 billion for Whole Foods, the Austin-based grocery chain, the companies confirmed to Inc. on Friday. The move is perfectly in line with Amazon's overall strategy, analysts say, and suggests that the purchase of more traditional retailers could be next.
The Seattle-based e-commerce giant has made more than 129 acquisitions or investments since launching in 1995, in sectors as varied as fashion, electronics, books, and cloud computing. There are some common themes: Amazon targets businesses that make the technology to power its hardware devices, like Evi, which undergirds Amazon's Echo device. It also targets companies that put it directly in the orbit of competitors such as Google, Apple or Netflix. Just one example is Twitch, a live-streaming game platform that Amazon acquired in 2014 for as much as $970 million in cash.
Of course, Amazon also spends big when it sees the opportunity to buy its competitors. "When Amazon decides it wants to win something, and the market's important to it, it will try to compete," noted Jeremy Levine, a partner at venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners, in a previous interview with Inc. "If it can't, it will ultimately buy the leader."
With Whole Foods, Amazon is dramatically increasing its presence in the grocery business--which it had previously entered with Amazon Fresh--while adding an additional $15 billion in annual sales to the bottom line. (Last year, Amazon said it did more than $135 billion in revenue.) Additionally, Whole Foods counts more than 460 physical locations across North America and in the U.K., which will help Amazon widen its reach beyond urban areas.
"This is so natural for Amazon because it has been fighting so hard to win in grocery," says Sucharita Mulpuru, an independent e-commerce analyst previously with Forrester Research.
The move could also be seen as a logistics play. In adding hundreds of new store locations, Amazon can trim costs by converting Whole Foods stores to pick-up centers rather than shipping items directly to customers. "It could leverage those stores to send trucks and crowd-source delivery," Mulpuru suggests. Last year, Amazon unveiled its first 'Amazon Go' grocery and convenience store to employees in Seattle.
Indeed, physical expansion has lately been a priority for Amazon, which last month unveiled its first bookstore location in New York City, and seventh overall. The vast majority of retail continues to happen in brick and mortar spaces--around 90 percent, according to Forrester data--a reality not lost on the e-commerce behemoth.
To that end, many suggest that big box retailers such as Nordstrom, the Gap, or even Target, could be Amazon's next targets. (Last week, Nordstrom announced that it was pursuing a sale that would take it private.) In recent years, such companies have lost thousands of customers to Amazon, which has a market cap greater than that of the next eight retailers combined.
Meanwhile, Amazon stands to benefit from Nordstrom and Gap stores, which it can leverage to acquire more customers or convert to shipping and logistics centers. "These retailers have prime locations, good stores and a loyal customer base, but the merchandise is challenged," Mulpuru says, referring to the market challenges throttling many traditional retailers. "Maybe Amazon shuts down some of the stores to get vertical sourcing out of it for apparel."
Whatever the company decides to do with Whole Foods, at least one thing is clear: The combined business is the one to beat in food. After the news broke on Friday morning, shares of Kroger fell by 12 percent, Target shares fell by 8.7 percent, and Walmart's dropped by 5.6 percent.
"For the next decade, all eyes will be on Amazon," Mulpuru continued, likening the company to a battle royal. "It's just going to be this coliseum, where [Amazon] is the gladiator, and the customers are in the stands cheering at all the low prices."